What is an Artificial Neural Network?

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January 7, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: January 7 on

If you’ve spent any time reading about artificial intelligence, you’ll almost certainly have heard about artificial neural networks. But what exactly is one? Rather than enrolling in a comprehensive computer science course or delving into some of the more in-depth resources that are available online, check out our handy layperson’s guide to get a quick and easy introduction to this amazing form of machine learning.

What is an artificial neural network?

Artificial neural networks are one of the main tools used in machine learning. As the “neural” part of their name suggests, they are brain-inspired systems which are intended to replicate the way that we humans learn. Neural networks consist of input and output layers, as well as (in most cases) a hidden layer consisting of units that transform the input into something that the output layer can use. They are excellent tools for finding patterns which are far too complex or numerous for a human programmer to extract and teach the machine to recognize.

While neural networks (also called “perceptrons”) have been around since the 1940s, it is only in the last several decades where they have become a major part of artificial intelligence. This is due to the arrival of a technique called “backpropagation,” which allows networks to adjust their hidden layers of neurons in situations where the outcome doesn’t match what the creator is hoping for — like a network designed to recognize dogs, which misidentifies a cat, for example.

Another important advance has been the arrival of deep learning neural networks, in which different layers of a multilayer network extract different features until it can recognize what it is looking for.

Sounds pretty complex. Can you explain it like I’m five?

For a basic idea of how a deep learning neural network learns, imagine a factory line. After the raw materials (the data set) are input, they are then passed down the conveyer belt, with each subsequent stop or layer extracting a different set of high-level features. If the network is intended to recognize an object, the first layer might analyze the brightness of its pixels.

The next layer could then identify any edges in the image, based on lines of similar pixels. After this, another layer may recognize textures and shapes, and so on. By the time the fourth or fifth layer is reached, the deep learning net will have created complex feature detectors. It can figure out that certain image elements (such as a pair of eyes, a nose, and a mouth) are commonly found together.

Once this is done, the researchers who have trained the network can give labels to the output, and then use backpropagation to correct any mistakes which have been made. After a while, the network can carry out its own classification tasks without needing humans to help every time.

Beyond this, there are different types of learning, such as supervised or unsupervised learning or reinforcement learning, in which the network learns for itself by trying to maximize its score — as memorably carried out by Google DeepMind’s Atari game-playing bot.

The article continues on to discuss:

types of neural networks,
tasks neural networks can do,
how neural networks learn, and
limitations of neural networks

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